The arcades of the 1980s had their very own answer to Conan the Barbarian, and his name was Rastan. I mean that literally: even the main illustration of Rastan mimics the classic pose of Arnold Schwartzenegger on the throne. But if the source material was weird (and it was), the Rastan Saga’s Japanese take on western barbarian fiction was oh-so-much weirder.
By looking at the various appearances of Rastan, it is possible to track his life and career as a barbarian king. In doing so, a lesson for us all emerges—a lesson about following your dreams, not giving up, and how axes are useful when dealing with bats and skeletons.
In the original game, Rastan, Rastan falls from the sky to do battle with the forces of evil. At least, we assume they are evil. Such is the benefit of the victors writing history. Either way, Rastan is ready to fight, his broadsword swinging around like one of those wacky waving inflatable tube men at a used car lot. It’s a classic side-scrolling platformer, with our hero running and jumping and killing things. My theory is that this first game represents Rastan’s youth, fresh out of barbarian school; the world is his oyster. He’s just received his B.A. (Barbarian Affirmation) from the college of Barbarism (not to be confused with the college of Barbers), and he’s ready to barbarian the hell out of things.
Enemies include green dragon dudes, winged demons, and fire-spitting chimeras. Also, lots of bats. I don’t know what it is with this kingdom, but there is an absolute bat infestation. Rastan can’t stop here, this is bat country. Also, at one point in the first level, Rastan encounters a lady. She only appears once, unlike all the many cloned enemies. One has to wonder, what’s her story? She’s a blonde, in pink and blue armor, and she carries a longsword. This, we must assume, is Rastan’s first love, the one that got away, and he must metaphorically slay her to move forward with his career as a barbarian.
Of course, barbarians aren’t known for their introspection or understanding of metaphor, so he slays her literally, with a flaming sword, as rocks fall from the sky.
At the end of each open world level, Rastan enters the enemy castle. The castles are not designed for living well. There are no staircases or elevators. If you want to get to another floor, you need to climb a rope. In every hallway, there seem to be mechanical spiked panels coming down from the ceiling. And, don’t think Rastan is going to get away from bats by going inside. There are whole colonies living in here, flying around, perching on axes that float mid-air, and making nuisances of themselves. Just imagine living here and trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some amenities. Sure, it’s drafty, but at least there’s a swimming pool-sized lake of fire to keep things cozy. There are also lots of armed guards to keep the castle’s occupants safe. Though these guards apparently care more about haute couture than defense. They all wear bizarre half-suits of armor. Not, like, a top and no pants, or leggings without a tunic. I mean that one half of them, left or right, is pretty much naked. Rastan recommends stabbing them in the squishy side.
Each castle is owned by a jerk. These jerks are mostly either skeleton wizards, or dragons, or dragon wizard skeletons. In these barbarian times, most evil doers seem to be at least adjacent to some combination of skeletons, wizards, or dragons. Rastan stabs them all.
To do said stabbing, Rastan has a few options. There’s an axe that is stronger than his sword, a mace that stretches the length of a mid-sized sedan, and a sword that is constantly on fire. All of them are guarded by bats. Everything is bats. Also, there are items Rastan can gather. According to the game, medicine is for “power increase” and poison is for “power decrease,” and as one might expect, gold sheep is for “maximum power increase.” It is unclear what Rastan does with the gold sheep. Maybe he eats it, like how beat-em-up game characters eat roast chicken they find in garbage cans.
The second game in the series is called Nastar. Who is this Nastar guy? What has he done with our hero? How is his story even related to our barbarian… wait a minute… In a mysterious turn, worthy of the skeleton wizard himself: Nastar is RASTAN backwards!
Like Rumplestiltskin, if you get him to say his name, maybe he goes away? If you look closely, checking the pixels in great detail, he does seem to almost have a moustache and goatee. Is this the evil twin of Rastan from a parallel universe? Like Spock in that one episode of Star Trek? The mind boggles.
So this stage in the barbarian king’s life represents his mid-life crisis. Rastan feels like he’s still in the prime of life, at the top of his game, but his movements aren’t as well animated, the music isn’t as well composed, and the enemies lack the panache they had in his first great chronicle. Maybe the team that put this game together just didn’t care as much about quality barbarianism. It’s pretty much the same dip in quality that the films experienced between Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), which could be an homage to the franchise, if it weren’t such a colossally bad idea.
What Nastar does have that the first game did not is an overabundance of skeletons. What bats were to Rastan, skeletons are to Nastar. Everybody make way for the skeleton parade! They are everywhere. Short skeletons, tall skeletons, skeletons of other monsters, skeletons riding elephants… Dogs would love this game. Piles of bones litter the landscape.
It is worth noting that upon putting a coin into the machine, what sounds like a chorus of young Japanese girls says: “Yes, we do.” What do we do? That mystery is never solved. Perhaps they mean to say that yes, we do develop sequels to action adventure games, between trips to the mall and selling our used panties in vending machines, and this is our finest work?
Champion Wrestler (1989)
What really illuminates the life and times of Rastan though, is looking at what he did in between games 2 and 3.
Even after all his adventures, Rastan was restless and couldn’t let go of his addiction to combat. Perhaps he found a time portal to leap through during one of his dungeon delves. Maybe a wizard cursed him. Whatever happened, it’s now the late 1980s, and professional wrestling is hot! Thus, in 1989, Taito released Champion Wrestler, featuring such grapplers as the road-warrior cosplayer Nitoro Panks and the fire-breathing “scary foreigner” Cobra Bloody Joe. Among the roster in the Taito Wrestling Association, a certain barbarian, now going under the moniker “Miracle Rastan.” The miracle may be how a high fantasy barbarian came to be in a wrestling ring somewhere in middle America in the same year that Prince released “Batdance.” Regardless, he has traded in swords and axes for body slams and flying elbows. Well, not entirely, because it is possible for Rastan to get his hands on a kendo stick, which of course, he swings like a sword.
Champion Wrestler had the conceit where each character had a series of winning screens that show the slow build of their success. For some characters, this might involve wine and women. Sometimes, it might show a character on the front page of a newspaper. In Rastan’s case, each time a match is won, the winning screen shows accumulation of greater wealth. Never one to leave his barbarian roots behind, Rastan is still in it for the gold and jewels, which he gathers in his arms. Also, a new home entertainment system complete with giant speakers and a wall poster that just reads “BIRDS.”
The game goes out of its way to show that Rastan has not forgotten his roots. He even poses for his championship match in full regalia. I guess the officials wouldn’t let him wear his helmet into the ring though, otherwise he might have stabbed someone with his horns. These nods to his true calling make it obvious then, that someday, Rastan will return to what he does best, which takes us to Warrior Blade.
Warrior Blade (Rastan Saga III) (1991)
Eventually, Rastan grew tired of the fabulous world of sports entertainment, took his fortune made in the ring, and went back to what made him: barbarianism. In Rastan Saga III: Warrior Blade, we see our hero Rastan in his later years. Treasures have been won, and kingdoms conquered. How do we know this? Now, he has a hireling: Dewey. There’s also a girl named Sophia hanging around who whips things. She whips barrels, she whips enemies, she whips Dewey. It’s obvious Rastan has saved his money well, because he can afford both a personal assistant and a dominatrix.
Rastan’s old nemesis, the skeleton, is back in force. At the top of the spiral tower, for example, Rastan must defeat a skeletal guy that is also on fire. In the castle, a skeletal man gets off his throne and starts throwing blue fireballs, while yet more skulls fall from the ceiling. Later on, another skeletal boss shows up complete with two heads—one human, the other demonic. This shows us that not only has Rastan changed and grown as a barbarian, but so have his foes. These are upwardly mobile skeletons. No longer simply minions, they have become bosses. Some of them create their own minions, some own thrones. This is the skeleton equivalent of getting a nice two level home in the suburbs with an above ground pool.
In the end, Rastan and all his colleagues have grown immensely, and through their ups and downs, they have formed a bond that goes beyond mere sword fighting and fireball hurling. At the end of Warrior Blade, a volcano destroys everything as our hero, his hireling, and his mistress sail off into the sunset. It’s time for Rastan’s retirement. He has worked hard and reached the very pinnacle of his profession. Also, there was a guy in this one who totally turns into a mutant octopus, and that’s pretty cool.
Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.